JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON – The ground rumbled for 90 seconds. The power went out. Trees, light poles and buildings swayed back and forth. Two years ago, Southcentral Alaska began its Friday with the largest earthquake it had experienced in more than a decade.
With the epicenter about 10 miles north of Anchorage, the Cook Inlet Earthquake registered a 7.1 magnitude and rocked most of Alaska’s population during the morning of November 30, 2018. First responders sprang into action, but once the dust settled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District emerged as a reliable military partner inspecting and repairing infrastructure on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
“The response efforts following this emergency is a testament to the expeditionary mindset of the Corps and its partners needed to operate in Alaska,” said Col. Damon Delarosa, Alaska District commander. “Hopefully, we will never have to experience another potential catastrophe, but if we do, then I know we will be ready.”
A few days after the natural disaster, the organization assigned a structural assessment team to inspect facilities for damage on the installation. Augmented by personnel from USACE’s Honolulu District and the Baltimore District’s 71st Forward Engineer Support Team, the group investigated 392 buildings between December 2018 and January 2019.
None of the facilities inspected were condemned, but 10 buildings were identified for major repairs totaling about $27 million worth of work. The JBER People Center, 673rd Air Base Wing Headquarters and a contracting facility are on that list. A project management team between USACE and the Air Force’s 673rd Civil Engineer Squadron is executing these ongoing and unique projects. So far, two are finished and the rest are scheduled for completion in 2021.
“These are not typical construction projects, or retrofits,” said Capt. Joanna Schell, the Alaska District’s project manager overseeing the earthquake repair efforts. “We had the challenge of determining what was actually earthquake damage or wear and tear of a building that is more than 60 years old.”
Built in 1953, building 8517 known as the People Center, serves as a main juncture for military and Department of Defense personnel and their families on the installation. The structure houses critical personnel functions such as in and out processing, ID cards, enlisted and officer records; personnel management for reassignments, family travel and other Soldier actions; and a retirement office.
During the 2018 quake, walls inside the building fell and some exterior walls cracked running from the foundation to the roofline. In total, the damages cost about $4 million. The project was completed in October 2020. It was important for the project management and contractor team to take on the challenge of balancing the installations’ need for continuity at the People Center and across all the repair efforts.
“We understand the importance of these facilities and the mission of the Soldiers and Airmen associated with them,” Schell said. “We included the end users of these facilities, like the People Center, in the construction timeline conversations to ensure that work would not interfere as much as possible.”
These discussions allowed contractors to work on sections of the building while personnel were still able to use the facility to do their jobs.
While the 2018 event was a significant natural disaster, all the buildings requiring attention survived the 1964 earthquake that registered a 9.2 magnitude and shook Southcentral Alaska for about five minutes. It is a testament to the legacy of the engineering, design and construction practices that many of these facilities share.
“From a structural standpoint, these buildings were put together rather well,” said Geoff Farley, project manager for the 673rd Civil Engineer Squadron. “If you were to go back and examine the original as-built drawings that were produced back in the 1950s, the People Center, headquarters building, and contracting facility were basically the same floor plan.”
While over the years customizations and maintenance choices have been performed on the facilities, the age of the materials inside are nearing 70 years old and, therefore, surprising that more damages were not sustained during the most recent earthquake, Farley added.
“None of the damage was life threatening,” he said. “It is of major concern, but we are still able to get in there to perform corrective repairs before it became more serious.”
The partnership between USACE and the Air Force has been a crucial component to successful construction efforts and enabling these facilities to last a few more decades. Executing the mission efficiently using everyone’s strengths, expertise and having the same goal and outcomes in mind was key, Farley said.
“The goal was to support mission readiness and provide a safe and usable facility for the installation,” Schell said. “I believe that’s something the team delivered and will continue as these projects remain into next year.”